Mission Critical: The Generalist

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Generalists. Their merits have been questioned, even scorned, across the ages. You’ve heard the old adage, “jack of all trades, master of none.” Yet, numerous books, studies, and publications (including Forbes and Harvard Business Review) have all touted the value, and even the importance, of the generalist—especially during times of internal change and external uncertainty. Who exactly are these folks? What do they know, and how do they work?

Bill Gates captured them eloquently when he said, “There’s a certain sharpness, an ability to absorb new facts. To walk into a situation, have something explained to you and immediately say, ‘Well, what about this?’ To ask an insightful question. To absorb it in real time. A capacity to remember. To relate to domains that may not seem connected at first. A certain creativity that allows people to be effective.” This is the essence and value of the generalist.

What are the key indicators for the generalist in business? First, they’re quick learners. They stand out as the interdepartmental communicators, multilingual interpreters—with the ability to speak product development, engineering, marketing, sales, IT, HR, and management. They have a foundational understanding of how systems, processes, and people work, and are able to synthesize and distill great amounts of seemingly disparate information into coherent concepts, then communicate them effectively. 

Generalists see challenges and opportunities in advance, assess quickly, make decisions based on the data (but round them out with experience and empathy), and are well-versed in “organizational speak.” They are the people you want at the table when brainstorming, launching a new product, expanding your mission, developing your brand, or creating a CSR strategy.

The history
Long ago and far away, it was a company’s generalists who ended up in key leadership positions. They may have started out in the mailroom and worked their way up to the C-suite—learning the ins and outs of all the departments along the way; connecting with the people and what was important to them; driving the mission, value proposition, and bottom line of the company.

Recognizing the significance of the generalist, larger corporations would identify “key performers,” and provide them with cross-training experiences, especially across middle and upper management. These key performers would be exposed to each discipline or area, across the scope of the organization—essentially nurturing what we’ve come to know as the “T-shaped” professional (a term popularized by Tim Brown, IDEO’s Chairman, in the early ‘90s). With a depth of skill in a specific discipline, T-shaped folks also possess the ability to collaborate across disciplines; applying knowledge in areas of expertise beyond their own. 

Today
Today’s generalists have taken on new heights. They’ve been elevated, and are experts in their own right. Orit Gadiesh, Chairperson of Bain, has even coined a term for them: “expert-generalist.” According to Gadiesh, an expert-generalist is “…someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics and then recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas…” From there, she states, “…they drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.”

Yet, despite the thought-leaders and the data, flavor of the year is still the specialist—the vertical learner, who is highly specialized and expert in a particular area. If generalists are T-shaped, specialists are I-shaped. Everyone wants them and, in all fairness to the specialist, they’re needed. But there is a balance required. Having an organization chock full of specialists tends to lead to what becomes its greatest challenge: silo-ing. Silo-ing occurs when highly specialized departments/areas don’t talk to, or worse, can’t understand each other.

A siloed organization’s “bigger picture” isn’t quite as big, and this translates to its customers, shareholders, constituents, and bottom-line. Are you maximizing the expertise within your organization by just focusing on your verticals, the experts?

What lies ahead
Our current business environment is one of disruption and emergence: a shifting landscape which requires an informed, contextualized, nimble approach from a panoramic view. This is the view of the generalist. They see all the moving parts, inside an organization and out, and understand the whats and whys that will yield maximum impact.

Don’t have a generalist on staff? Time to nurture one. That, or hire a consulting firm who does.

Christina DeSantis is Chief Generalist and Partner at Impact Collaborative.